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Translating Witold Gombrowicz's Ferdydurke
by Danuta Borchardt (adapted from the lecture given at Boston University on April 28th, 2000.)

This essay deals with the first unabridged, directly from the Polish translation of Ferdydurke. How did the idea of this translation--'a miracle', as some were gracious enough to call it--come to pass?
     Several factors were at work. One was that (not being a translator by profession) I 'stumbled' onto translating Gombrowicz. My first encounter with his work occurred in the 1989. A few of us enrolled in Andrei Codrescu's seminar "Poetic Journeys" were taking a walk one day along a country lane in Western Massachusetts, when Andrei, knowing that I'm Polish, started to expound on the three Polish literary luminaries: Bruno Schultz, Ignacy Witkiewicz, and Witold Gombrowicz. He put me to shame, for busy with a full life as a mother, wife and psychiatrist, I was hardly acquainted with their work. I soon tried to correct this by first reading Gombrowicz's last novel Cosmos. I was fascinated, and, as I was reading it, it slowly dawned on me how beautifully it would sound in English. I translated the first chapter of Cosmos, and showed it to Stanislaw Baranczak. Soon after my having contacted him came a request to try my hand at Ferdydurke. Baranczak as well as some potential publishers felt that translating Ferdydurke, Gombrowicz's first major work, took priority over Cosmos.
     Another factor was that, having already written some short short stories that were idiosyncratic in content and style, I found myself in sympathy with Gombrowicz's writing. And, last but not least is the fortuitous coincidence--my Polish is deeply rooted in the Polish of Gombrowicz's time, in its nuances and expressions.
     Before I begin to look at the issues of translating Ferdydurke, I would like to mention a few details about Gombrowicz's life. He was born in Poland in 1904 and died in France in 1969. The following is a somewhat paraphrased quote about himself: "I came from a venerable home, where my father--a handsome, well-bred man--was a landowner and an industrialist, and my mother--the daughter of a landowner--was a woman sheltered from the realities of life... She had great qualities, but also weaknesses resulting from the artificiality of her life and of her upbringing... This became the basis for my elder brothers' and mine constant wrangling with her, and teasing her... We opposed whatever she said. I think that those exercises in ridiculousness were of great benefit to me years later when I started writing my works. Considering there were three of us brothers--my sister did not take part in this sport--our home gradually took on the semblance of a house of lunatics, and it was only my father's severity and seriousness that saved us from a total catastrophe. Because of her incredible naiveté my mother always managed to get drawn into crazy polemics. What fun! I'm sure that this was later, in my creativity, the source of my love of fun and games and my understanding of its great significance in culture."
     Gombrowicz grew up to be a difficult man. An annoying person to many, he gave voice to his iconoclastic tendencies in his writing. His first work was a collection of short stories, initially published in 1933 under the title of Memoirs of a Time of Immaturity. His second work was the novel Ferdydurke, published in 1937. It was groundbreaking in terms of its content and style, an instant success, but it was also controversial. To spare themselves an embarrassment, Gombrowicz's family bought out all the issues of Ferdydurke from bookstores in his hometown of Radom.
     One of the consequences of Gombrowicz's renown was that he was offered a sea voyage to Argentina. A few days after he arrived in Buenos Aires W.W.II broke out, and Gombrowicz never returned to Poland. He remained in Argentina for 24 years, and there he wrote the novels Trans-Atlantyk and Pornografia. While there he also wrote the Diary, which is considered his major non-fiction work. After leaving Argentina he returned to Europe and settled in France. His works became known in Europe through translations into French, German and English, but in Poland they were eschewed by the Polish Communist regime. Now, Ferdydurke is required reading in high schools in Poland. Gombrowicz won the prestigious International Prize for Literature in 1967 for Cosmos, and he was a candidate for the Nobel Prize in 1968.
     I would like to introduce Ferdydurke by quoting a few words about it by Gombrowicz himself, written a few days after its publication. He says that it is not "... a satire on some social class, nor a nihilistic attack on culture... We live in an era of violent changes, of accelerated development, in which settled forms are breaking under life's pressure... The need to find a form for what is yet immature, uncrystalized and underdeveloped, as well as the groan at the impossibility of such a postulate--this is the chief excitement of my book."
     Eventually, through its translations, Ferdydurke was enthusiastically received by the French and the Germans, and it became a cult book in some instances: Michael Hofmann, the translator, had said that in Germany people would greet one another by asking "are you a Ferdydurkian?" Ferdydurke and Gombrowicz's other novels have been on the English scene since the early 1960's, and have had several reprintings, including by Penguin Books in 1986 as part of their "Writers from the Other Europe" series. However, both Cosmos and Ferdydurke were not translated directly from the Polish but through the French, German and Spanish. To quote Beth Holmgren from her article in The Polish Review of 1988, the translations of these novels "do not reflect the style-specifically, the syntactic rhythm and intonation-of the original text. They read like ponderous paraphrases." The shortcomings of these translations which, in Ferdydurke, include omissions of the most beautiful and complex passages, account for the fact that Gombrowicz is not well known to the English-speaking audience.
     My favorite way of putting Gombrowicz and Ferdydurke "on the map," so to speak, is by quoting Milan Kundera from his Testaments Betrayed written in 1993. He says: "Ferdydurke was published in 1937, a year before Nausea, but as Gombrowicz was unknown and Sartre famous, Nausea, so to speak, usurped Gombrowicz's rightful place in the history of the novel. Whereas Nausea is existential philosophy in a novel's clothing (as if a professor had decided to entertain his drowsy students by teaching the lesson in the form of a novel), Gombrowicz wrote a real novel that ties into the old comic-novel tradition (as in Rabelais, Cervantes, Fielding), and so existential issues, about which he was no less passionate than Sartre, come across in his book as unserious and funny." Kundera goes on to say: "Discovered some twenty or thirty years after their creation, Gombrowicz's works, and Broch's and Musil's (and certainly Kafka's), no longer had the potency required to seduce a generation and create a movement; interpreted by a different aesthetic school, which in many regards stood opposed to them, they were respected--even admired--but ill understood, such that the greatest shift in the history of the twentieth-century novel went unnoticed."
     Ferdydurke is, then, in the general context of literature, a philosophical, psychological as well as a realistic novel, a grotesque and a parody. Gombrowicz weaves into the book his theme that immaturity is the force behind our creative endeavors, and in he says: "it just didn't seem appropriate to dismiss, easily and glibly, the sniveling brat." And later in the book: "anyone incessantly pursued by the brat within had not business appearing in public without the brat."
     There are, interspersed between his story-telling, philosophical passages where Gombrowicz engages the reader in a pithy dialogue. Besides dealing with psychological issues, he comments on the angst of our times: "...the face of this century--the face of the twentieth century, the century of all centuries gone mad..." And: "...the transiency of our century...", "...the speed and intensity of contemporary life..." All of these remain pertinent to this day.
     Before I come to the specifics of translating Ferdydurke I would like to mention a couple of general issues as they relate to the process of translation. One is the Polish language, the other is translating in reverse, so to speak, from a native to an acquired language.
     First of all, when I talk about the Polish of Gombrowicz's time, I do not mean to imply that the language has changed since then in any major way, though new expressions have developed, many of them from the English, such as parking, the weekend, also quite a few that I may not be familiar with. The Polish language is one of those languages where the grammar, with its declensions and conjugations, is rather complicated. Verbs are formed in such a way that nouns and pronouns can, and often are, omitted. Sometimes the meaning of a sentence is so self-evident that a verb can be omitted. There is a peculiarity (probably cultural and grammatical) in which meaning is often implicit, and does not have to be fully enunciated. This makes it necessary to write a longer sentence in English in order to convey the meaning. Again, because of declensions and conjugations the sequence of words is not crucial to the meaning of a sentence as it is in English. Mishaps like "he threw his mother from the train a kiss" do not occur in Polish. However, even though English is a fixed word order language, reversal of the order is sometimes used to create emphasis as in Lear's The Owl and the Pussy Cat: "Oh, what a wonderful Pussy you are, you are!" And here, in Ferdydurke: "Because Slowacki--oh, what a great poet he was!"
     Both Polish and English have many derivations from Latin, but these derivations often have a different meaning, as for example in creation, collation.     
     The other general issue is that of translating in reverse, so to speak, from a native to an acquired language. Writing short fiction in English, as I have done, helps but I don't always have a gut feeling for the English as I do for the Polish. I am not, strictly speaking, bilingual-that starts at the age two or three, I believe, while I started to learn English at thirteen. I therefore needed a native speaker of American English, and I found my husband most helpful in this respect. This brings me back to Ferdydurke. I decided to translate it into American English (unlike the previous translation which was into British English), because I felt that American English is better suited to Gombrowicz's informal style.
     Now I would like to go into the nitty-gritty, the more specific issues of translating Ferdydurke. Because the book is such strange, complex and innovative work in the Polish it presents special problems of translation.
     Gombrowicz uses two main metaphors to convey some of his ideas. One is 'geba'--the slang word for a 'face', translated here into the mug. The other is 'pupa' for which there is no word in the English language to convey the exact flavor and meaning that's needed here. The French have it: 'cucul', the Spanish have it: 'culito'. In English it might be the buttocks, the backside, the bum, the rump. None of these quite work in the context.
     'Geba' or the 'mug' is the metaphor for destructive elements in our relating to one another, while pupa or the buttocks, the bum, if you will, is the metaphor for belittlement, for humiliation that we inflict on one another. Pupa has a belittling quality, it is a soft, gentle word, and it can have a comical connotation. After thinking long and hard I came up with the word 'tush'. In the context of Gombrowicz's ideas, and of the impression he tries to create, 'tush' seems to work the best. As if that weren't enough, Gombrowicz turns the word pupa into a verb that does not exist in Polish, and therefore tush would become tushed in English, while any of the other words for that part of the anatomy would not work as a verb. But this is not the end of the story. When Susan Sontag, who considers Ferdydurke one of the most important novels of the twentieth century, read my translation before writing her foreword to the book, did not like 'tush'. Mainly because of its Yiddish derivation, and that it would not sit right with the English-speaking audience. My editor agreed with her. Sontag suggested 'rump', which I totally disagreed with. It creates the wrong impression, not in keeping with Gombrowicz's metaphor. My editor then came up with the suggestion that we keep the Polish word pupa, saying that a foreign word is quite often transferred from a foreign text. I agreed with him, and so, from now on, it will be pupa, and we'll see how it fares in the English language. However, there will be no verb 'tushed'. By the way, Gombrowicz does not make a verb from the word 'mug', or I'd be in deep trouble using a word like 'mugged' or 'mugging' that do not occur in the text. Instead, when he needs a verb in relation to the mug, he says "she stuck this mug on you," or "one human being putting the screws to the mug of another."
     The leg, and more often the calf of the leg, is another body part that Gombrowicz uses as a metaphor. It represents sportiness, feistiness, modernity, youthfulness. The calf comes up a lot, but in English, unfortunately, this word has another connotation, namely a baby cow. I therefore couldn't always use just the word 'calf' without it sounding unclear. So sometimes it was 'calf', at other times the 'leg' or 'calf of the leg'. You can see what fun I had with Gombrowicz's body parts! As an aside, I would like to mention that, in the previous translation, the leg and the calf of the leg were translated into 'thigh'. But, I can assure you that, whatever body parts there are in Ferdydurke, there is, in the whole book, no thigh!
     In Polish there is a derogatory word for teacher which is 'belfer'. I've translated it into 'prof'. Here again Gombrowicz made up a verb that does not exist in Polish, so I came up with 'proffed.'
     I would like now to further focus on other
oddities in the language of Ferdydurke that have made it such a challenge to translate. Gombrowicz's style in the Polish is innovative, and some of his oddities have since entered colloquial Polish. He created his own language-unusual phraseology, neologisms when changing nouns into verbs as I've indicated, verbs into adjectives. I can't help thinking that having worked with schizophrenic patients who create their own languages, gave me some perspective on the possibility of creating innovations that translating Ferdydurke certainly called for. I have already mentioned some, and now I'd like to discuss about the Polish prefix 'niedo' which means 'not quite'. If you look in the dictionary there are many words that begin with 'niedo' that is part of a word. But Gombrowicz had his own ideas about that and stuck this prefix onto words that didn't have it before. I translated every such 'niedo' into 'not-quite', using hyphens as in 'not-quite-shaping', 'not-quite-forming', to indicate a deviation from the norm.
     I would like to quote a few more examples of Gombrowicz's strange way of using the Polish language: "...and I began to explode with an impotent, bestial, mechanical, knee-jerk kind of laughter as if someone were tickling my foot." In the Polish text it says 'leggy' laughter which does not quite convey the right meaning. What Gombrowicz means here by 'leggy' is more like the way one kicks one's leg in football. Hence I thought 'knee-jerk' laughter was closer to the meaning. Or: "the pupa had rolled over the lads and the guys. The world seemed to have collapsed and reset itself in the mode of the lad and the guy." The pupa rolling over anyone sounds just as odd in Polish as it does in the English. And: "I wanted to protest, but this despot of a prof had proffed me with his absolutist prof so suddenly that I could not, so I just bowed and, full of unspoken protests and roars that drowned all protests, I went to class." One of the strangest constructions occurs when Pimko finds out, to his horror, that Zuta knows nothing about Norwid, and this is what Gombrowicz says (my underline): "The atmosphere became very pleasant indeed. The schoolgirl did not know about Norwid to Pimko. Pimko was shocked by Norwid to the schoolgirl." In my translation this becomes: "The schoolgirl tossed her ignorance of Norwid to Pimko, Pimko tossed his shock at her ignorance of Norwid back to the schoolgirl." When a rather lively relationship continues to develop between Pimko and Zuta Gombrowicz says: "Pimko excited her schoolgirlishness with his 'prof', while she incited him with her schoolgirlishness to be the prof." Here, as in several other situations, my American husband would remark "we don't say it like that in English." Well, we don't say it like that in Polish either. It's pure Gombrowicz.
     One more example: there is a moment when Gombrowicz, in a rather idiosyncratic way, expounds on the metaphor of the mug as a destructive element in human relationships:
     "Oh, I know no greater cruelty than that of one human being putting the screws to the mug of another. No holds barred, just shove it into the ridiculous, the grotesque, make a sham of it, because the ugliness of one man sustains the beauty of another, and oh, believe me, dealing someone the pupa is nothing compared to putting the screws to someone's mug!"
     Gombrowicz used several types of idiomatic Polish-colloquial, literary, and the language of Polish peasants. To convey the flavor of the peasant language, that, as such, does not exist in American English, I have relied on the forms used by the uneducated, for example by dropping the terminal 'g' as in startin' instead of 'starting', and by using double negatives.     
     One of the most difficult phrases to translate was 'dzieckiem podszyty'. Again, the French have it: 'double d'enfant', the Spanish have it: 'forrado de nino'. What Gombrowicz means to say is that a person is influenced, pervaded by the child within. Literally the text says that Filidor is lined with the child. Gombrowicz's phrase comes from the idiom denoting a coat that is so thin and light that it is lined with the wind. The idiom is never used that way with the word 'child'. You can use it as an abstract, as in 'lined with fear'. Now the verb part in Gombrowicz's phrase is half the problem. The other problem is that Gombrowicz deliberately uses the word child, not childishness. So-lined with, possibly laced with childishness would be all right, but with 'child'-no, too odd to give justice to Gombrowicz's expression. Since Gombrowicz used a well-known idiom my task, as I saw it, was to convey Gombrowicz's meaning in an idiomatic way, to use the word child, not childishness, and to provide an expression which would fit the context--no more than four times in the book, and a couple of years' obsessing and deliberations on my part! I finally came up with 'the child runs deep in Filidor'. The previous translation had 'Filidor honeycombed with childishness'.
     Length of sentences was an issue in the translation. To return to what Holmgren refers to as 'ponderous paraphrases', what is lost, she says, is: "that all-important narrative tone-the emphatic or spellbinding repetitions, the headlong sentence structure, the verbal signals of a narrator seeking to engage, provoke or coerce the reader." Here is an example of a "headlong sentence structure": H o w one organizes oneself and t o w a r d s w h a t one directs oneself is actually of primary importance and crucial to one's development-in actions, for example, in speech and twaddle, in one's writing-whether one directs oneself solely towards those who are mature and fully evolved, towards a world of crystal-clear ideas, or whether one lets oneself be constantly plagued by the specter of the rabble, of immaturity, of schoolboys and schoolgirls, of gentry and peasantry, of cultural aunts, of journalists and columnists, by the specter of the shady, murky demimonde which lies in wait to slowly entwine you in the green of its creepers, lianas and other African plants." In his long sentences Gombrowicz often used dashes, and, for the most part, I kept them intact.
     It was interesting for me to realize that Gombrowicz used the concrete to convey the abstract-another one of his oddities. In the following example he talks about the letters that some of the schoolboys wrote to Zuta: "See how each one (of them) trembled and suffered as he put pen to paper, how watchful he was as he weighed his words in order not to tumble down an incline straight into his own immaturity, down to the calves of his legs." Quite a tumble! In another instance: "The farmhand (not 'the thought about a farmhand', or 'thinking about the farmhand') paints the morning in bright and pleasant colors." Or, when auntie wants Konstany, who is holding a pistol, to make him let go of it, drop it, Gombrowicz says: "she adjusted his tie, thus totally invalidating his pistol." In other words auntie, by adjusting Konstanty's tie, defused the situation.
     Now I would like to address the issue of translation of idioms. The English idiom 'like two peas in a pod' is, in Polish: 'like two drops of water'. In this instance I decided to use the English idiom because it sounded more natural. My reasoning was that, since there is so much strangeness in the text, I would use something that sounded more natural to the English reader, as long as nothing was lost in the process. Sometimes a literal translation of an idiom was more fresh and charming. For example, in English, 'the end justifies the means' became, in Polish, 'the end sanctifies the means'. So I used the Polish version. However, 'as a drowning man clutches a straw' is, in Polish, 'as a drowning man clutches a razor'. I used the English version because the context did not require such drama.
     Gombrowicz liked to 'play' as we have learned from his own remarks, and play on words was one of the ways. In Polish the word 'majtki' namely 'panties', also means young sailors or deckhands. Here is the literal translation: "Panties as panties-her modern panties didn't bespoil the girl, they had lost their former, domestic character, they were more akin to deckhands." In the translation I wanted to work in, somehow, the association with the sea, and also to use the association of the words by sound. And so we have: "Her panties were just panties--no more domestic than sea shanties."
     Another interesting issue was that of changes of tense. The more normal usage is to keep the same tense within a paragraph, and certainly within a sentence. Gombrowicz, however, made changes in the tense within paragraphs and, quite abruptly, within a sentence. I followed his text this regard. Here is an example: "This is what burned me up now, what stung me, hurt me! I sat on the sofa unable to shout that he was deliberately lying--so, I make myself more comfortable, stretch my legs, try to sit modernly..."
     Using synonyms rather than repeating the same word on the same page is another example of a more normal usage. Gombrowicz, however, often used the same word-for the sake of rhythm, or to deliberately evoke a sense of monotony of a situation. I did the same.
     The use of diminutives is very prevalent in Polish. It is at times an annoying habit, and gives an air of affectation. Gombrowicz used them in the service of the ridiculous. I dealt with it by using the word 'little', or by inserting another adjective as in 'cute little head' to make it sound more natural, or by adding an 'ie' as in sweetie.
     Translation of names was an issue because Gombrowicz invented names that, for the most part, had a meaning in Polish and sounded funny. For example, Mietus comes from the verb 'mietosic' which means to knead. I decided to translate it by using the verb to knead, because kneading comes up in the text several times. So I called him Kneadus. I left Zuta intact, but I changed her and her parents' the last name from Youthful, in the previous translation, to Youngblood--it sounded more vigorous, and maybe more incongruous in relation to the middle-aged couple and to the staid position of Zuta's father. Koperski (which derives from 'koper' or 'dill') was another name that I did translate, even though he is mentioned only once yet in a succession of other ridiculous names. So there was Koperdillski, Kabbaginski, where dill and cabbage were the basis for the names. Gombrowicz had fun with this, I'm sure, and so did I!
     In summary, I would like to make some general observations:
     English is one of those languages where the order of words is crucial to the meaning of the sentence. I became keenly aware how logical is the structure of the English sentence. English writers probably know this intuitively, but for non-native writers it takes a conscious effort to convey the correct meaning by strictly following the order of words.
     Another issue which seems obvious but is often missed is that of thoroughly understanding the meaning of the piece you are translating, and not just think you do. I sometimes hear readers say that they don't understand a piece of a story that's been translated. My assumption usually is that if a reader doesn't understand something, the translator didn't either. In my own situation, when I was translating something philosophical that Gombrowicz wrote, it sometimes did happen that I thought I 'had it', but my husband who does not know any Polish would say "go back to the text, something doesn't quite add up here", and he would be right!
     I would suggest that you preserve oddities as much as possible, don't be afraid to make English stand on its head-other English writers have done it.
     In translating idioms it is a translator's judgment call whether to translate an idiom literally, or whether to use its English counterpart.
     Play around with literal translation. I found it helpful in getting not only the correct meaning of the material, but also the spirit of the original; to loosen up, and especially if you need a comic turn. And here I would like to stress humor. Make sure your sense of humor is alive and well, and alert in relation to the original. A whole new translation of one of Dostoyevsky's novels (Crime and Punishment, I think), has appeared, because Richard Pevear (with his wife Larissa Volokhonsky) thought that humor was missing from the previous translation.
Concerning punctuation: if an author makes creative use of punctuation that contributes to the way he expresses himself I would keep that. However, in terms of punctuation in general, I would tend to follow The Chicago Manual of Style.
     And lastly, I think it is terribly important to maintain the rhythm of the original, so: rhythm, rhythm, and again--rhythm. Reading aloud helps.
     All in all my guiding principle was to approach Gombrowicz with humility and the reader with audacity.
     Those who have read the previous translation of Ferdydurke have missed out on Gombrowicz's parting words. Here they are, initialed, as in the original:
          "It's the end, what a gas,
          And who's read it is an ass!"

Danuta Borchardt is a writer of short stories that have previously been published in the Exqusite Corpse.

Email: danuta@tiac.net

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